Lisa P. writes in with these questions: How long should you leave the work in a gallery if it is not selling? Six months? A year? Can you ask for it to be shipped somewhere besides your studio?
This is a timely question because sales these days are slow. On the one hand, a dealer may want to hold onto the work in the hopes of selling it (collectors in this economy may be taking longer than usual to commit to a purchase). On the other, the dealer may not want to retain inventory that has no likelihood of selling any time soon.
I think a year is reasonable. It gives dealers ample time, and a fair window, to sell through a show. After that, I find that an artist's work (OK, my work) tends to disappear into the back of the stacks as newer work comes in. I'd prefer to retrieve the older work and send something new. Or, something I've been doing recently: Moving the work around so that each dealer gets a few new pieces along with work that's "new" to them but not necessarily new in the world. (My feeling: Solo shows get new work; general inventory doesn’t have to be hot off the griddle.)
Check the terms of your consignment form. You don't need a contract, but you and the dealer should each have a signed sheet that lists what work you have consigned to the gallery and when. It's useful in so many ways: so that the gallery knows what's on hand, so that you know, so that sales can be tracked by both of you. And in case of the unthinkable (fire, flood, theft), there's a paper trail for insurance. This form typically lists the duration a gallery expects to retain the work.
. If the consignment doesn’t specify length of consignment, open a discussion: Ask what terms the gallery prefers, and let your preference be known. Then you can add that to the consignment, or agree verbally, after which you would send a letter (not an e-mail) stating the agreed-upon terms. Keep a copy for yourself. This is not a legal document so much as it is a clarification of the terms you have agreed upon, so that when the time comes to pick up the work or have it sent back, everyone is literally on the same page.
. If you don’t have a consignment form, generate one yourself and ask the dealer to sign it. (Some dealers just aren't good with paperwork. Rather then being offended that you have generated a form, they should welcome it. That's been my experience, anyway.) Include the terms of retention that you and the dealer have discussed. This might be a legal document; but I'm not a lawyer so don’t take my word for it. At the very least it spells out what work of yours the gallery holds and the length the gallery will hold it. I prefer a list that includes thumbnail images; it's much easier to identify the work.
In this economy, some dealers are holding onto work just not to have to spend the money to send it back. That's a bad idea; not only is the work going nowhere saleswise, it's literally going nowhere. If the dealer really can't afford to send the work back, I'd prefer s/he send it back on my Fed Ex account with the idea that when times get better, the gallery will pay for both-way shipping, or reimburse. The economy may not be great, but sales are still being made. I'd rather pay to move my work to where the sales are. It's not unreasonable to ask Dealer A to send work directly to Dealer B. And if Gallery B is keen to get some "new" work, see if you can have the shipment put on their account. As for commissions, while I feel for the galleries that are struggling, I don't believe Gallery A should expect a commission on work sent to Gallery B unless the two galleries have been in discussion about the sale of particular piece.
Those of you who have been at this for a while: What do you think is a reasonable retention time? And, dealers, please weigh in here (anonymously if you prefer), noting especially how the situation has changed as a result of this economy.